Here’s a situation that’s far too common: You’re cruising down the highway when suddenly a piece of debris appears in the road.
Road debris can range from small pieces of plastic to old mattresses to even larger debris. While most drivers manage to avoid these hazards, car crashes caused by road debris can result in serious injuries and property damage.
Understanding who may be liable for a road debris accident is important for those who have been injured and may be considering filing a personal injury lawsuit.
Let’s take a closer look.
Are road debris accidents common?
Road debris accidents are probably more common than you think.
According to a recent study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there were approximately 200,000 crashes reported to have been caused by road debris in the United States over a three-year period. These accidents resulted in 39,000 injuries and more than 500 deaths.
Who’s liable in road debris accidents?
Determining who is liable for a road debris accident involves determining who was negligent. Negligence occurs when someone’s actions (or inactions) fall below a legally recognized standard. Proving negligence requires establishing four elements:
- Duty: The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff.
- Breach: The defendant breached that duty by failing to act as a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances.
- Causation: The defendant's breach caused the plaintiff's injuries.
- Damages: The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant's breach.
Parties who are commonly held liable for road debris accidents include:
- Drivers: The driver or owner of the vehicle that dropped the debris can be held liable for a road debris accident. All drivers have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming others on the road. If a driver fails to properly secure a load or if a driver tosses something out of their car window, the driver may be held liable for an accident that results.
- Construction companies: A construction company can be held liable for a car accident caused by road debris if they fail to fulfill their duty to maintain a safe work zone. This includes properly securing construction materials and equipment, as well as ensuring that debris does not end up on the roadway.
- Government entities: Under premises liability laws, the owner of a road must keep the road free of dangerous conditions. Public roads are owned by government entities, which means the government entity has a duty to remove road debris that the entity knows or should know about.
Pursuing a claim against a government entity can be challenging due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which generally protects government entities from liability. In many states, sovereign immunity has been waived for certain types of claims, but there may be specific notice requirements and procedural rules that must be followed. For this reason, it’s important to talk to an experienced personal injury attorney if you are considering pursuing a claim against the government.
Kowalewski v. BNSF Railway
Carol Kowalewski was driving on a public street in Bridgeview, Illinois, when her vehicle struck a wooden railroad tie that had fallen off a flatbed truck owned by BNSF Railway.
As a result of the accident, Carol sustained serious injuries and filed a personal injury lawsuit against BNSF Railway, alleging that the company was negligent based on its failure to properly secure the railroad tie.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of BNSF Railway, finding that the plaintiff had failed to establish that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. Carol appealed the decision.
The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial court's decision, holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether BNSF Railway had notice of the dangerous condition. The court found that the evidence presented by the plaintiff, including photographs of the flatbed truck and the railroad tie, raised a question as to whether BNSF Railway should have known about the hazard posed by the unsecured railroad tie.
Ultimately, the case settled out of court.
Motor vehicle accidents caused by road debris can result in significant injuries, property damage, and emotional distress. Determining liability in these cases can be complex, involving multiple parties such as drivers, construction companies, and government entities. If you or a loved one has been involved in a road debris accident, it's important to meet with an experienced personal injury attorney to protect your rights and ensure you receive the compensation you deserve.